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Mining Minecraft Donations


OK. I admit it.

I’ve bought into Minecraft as an educational tool.

I think it will work to build a pretty good community in my classroom. So I’ve posted a request for donations on DonorsChoose.  DonorsChoose is a grass-roots crowdsourcing site that allows you to hit up all the lovely people you know for a buck here and a buck there. And eventually, you can buy those things that the school just doesn’t seem to have the cash to purchase.

Here’s the request that DonorsChoose asks me to send out to friends and neighbors and relatives:

Subject: Help me build a better classroom

Hi Friends,

I want to make sure my students have the materials they need to succeed, so I just created a DonorsChoose.org classroom request.

Building Soft Skills Through Minecraft

In return, you’ll get awesome photos of your gift in action and our heartfelt thanks.

Thank you so much,

P.S. If you know anyone who may want to help my students, please pass this along!

And I will. But first, I need to talk through my justifications.

I have just played Minecraft for the past five weeks with an extraordinary group of educators, most of whom already have bought into Minecraft as a thing you do. Some of them are extensively knowledgeable.

Me? I’m a newb. I didn’t know anything about Minecraft, other than it was important enough to my daughter to ask me to invest $6 of her own money for an app on the iPad so she could play.

So I jumped in. How can you criticize something you know nothing about? I had heard it had educational applications. I had my doubts.

But now I can see specific applications where students could be nudged not only into participating, but into joining–and thriving in–a community.

One of my mantras since I started blogging was the need for students to feel safe and loved and cared about in order for learning to take place.

In my schools in chilly Vermont, there is not one teacher who doesn’t surreptitiously take a look at the footwear of children as they walk into a room on a cold, snowy morning, just to make sure they have the right clothing. We feed our kids snacks, and we offer breakfast in the hallways to hungry teens. We don’t worry about the economic backgrounds. We just know that hungry, cold, hurting kids can’t learn.

And a big part of that is establishing a loving community in the classroom. As I’ve told my students in the past, you don’t have to like everybody, but you do have to accept them as people, and you do  have to understand that everybody is going through his or her own personal struggles.

And we can be a friend to those in need.

Conversations that have been happening in the EVO Minecraft community often have to do with people asking for help or asking for advice. Everybody is trying to figure things out, and to do that, you sometimes need a friendly voice to talk you through it, or to throw you a bone. Or to tell you how to build something you desperately need to be able to move on or find a new goal.

I started thinking about soft skills, something that I had tried to connect dance and movement to in my classroom for the past couple of years. Soft skills are those things that we are rarely explicitly taught in the classroom. You can’t really test soft skills. But you can develop them. And hone them.

I found this lovely video of a teacher in Maryland who found out that he was teaching soft skills with Minecraft:

And then I was sold. I went immediately to DonorsChoose and wrote my grant. It just got approved yesterday to be posted on the site.

I think this can bring those boys who I am so afraid will drop out so very soon back into the fold.

The fact that they are the masters, they are the ones who are the decision-makers, the builders, the knowledge holders, it puts them in a unique position to feel power and control over a world in which they feel they possess very little power and control.

Maybe I can convince them that life doesn’t just happen to them. They can be the movers and the shakers.

And they can be the ones to create a chest that has a bunch of food in it for the person who is struggling to survive. They can be the one to just happen to have an extra compass on hand that they can throw at someone so they can find their way back home.

I have found that there came a point in Minecraft where I finally felt as though I had abundance. I have enough to give away; I have enough to share. I have enough that I can show kindness to strangers and feel like it’s the right thing to do.

And if feels much better than hiding from zombies.

Time to reflect…


I am afraid of skellies. More than anything else.

I have the sound turned up for evil creatures.

I know I can kill a spider.

I know I can whack a zombie.

I can usually outrun a creeper. Or my cool armor protects me from the blasts.

But the skellies have an unfair advantage. They shoot arrows.

I am not adept at fighting. I keep accidentally picking up the wrong tools. You can’t kill a zombie with seeds. Or wheat. Or a block of sand.

But I did find out today that if I’m at high enough elevation, I can build guard snowmen. How cool is that?

And I can block myself in. As long as I have a torch.

The most important lessons I’ve learned is to never venture out without an extra set of tools and some torches. It can be deadly without them.

It’s more fun to fight when there are more people around.

I’ve never considered myself a hermit, and yet I built close to resources because I needed to survive the night. I would love to build a second home in the city, reflecting on my own desires to be close to someplace where things happen. And now that I have a compass, I won’t get lost.

I didn’t think I’d be won over as a Minecraft devotee. I took this EVO class because I didn’t see how it could possibly help with language learning. I could see social studies. I could see math. And maybe even some science/biology. But not really language.

Articles I had read talked about communication. But..

  • Talking to each other through texting works the same way as regular texting. There’s no control over how poorly I write.
  • If I set up a way to talk, my students tend to hang out in language subgroups and often default to the first language, so I didn’t buy into that either.
  • Writing books or signs takes time and resources. I still haven’t manufactured my first book. And, really, how is that different from texting? There’s not a whole lot of room to write, and therefore, not a whole lot of writing to assess.
  • And then there is the time to reflect, which is what I’m doing now. But why do we need Minecraft to reflect? When I was working with a second-grade teacher in her classroom a few years back, it was all we could do to have kids write about their real-life experiences instead of what Barbie or their favorite superhero had done. I really don’t want to read stories about roving mobs.

But I wanted to try. I wanted to give the class a chance to win me over.

Now, I see I have a lot to learn.

And I’m gravitating more to the “soft skills” we want students to develop. These soft skills include teamwork and cooperation, effective communication and patience. Creativity. “Outside the box” thinking. Resourcefulness. Planning. These skills are not innate. And usually we learn through trial and error. But sometimes when you are dealing with learning a new language, culture and school all at the same time, it leaves little space for refining soft skills.

All of these skills, however, are essential when working in Minecraft. And you learn that you can’t just throw things together and make them happen. Tools must be built in a certain pattern. To accomplish one feat, you must first do three other things to make it happen. Knowledge and tools and experience can be shared and passed on.

Recently, I listened to a podcast from NPR’s Hidden Brain.  It talks about how we are motivated not so much by success, but by almosts or near misses. And constructed video game designers know this. It’s what makes people come back. Just one more try and I’ll make it. But this concept is also inherent in Minecraft. It’s what gets us to come back. If I try something THIS way instead of THAT way, maybe I can make it work. Maybe I can create something even better.

In our school, our ELL population is primarily former refugees. My colleague and I have been working on a class for new students in the past couple years to build community, so that students feel comfortable eating lunch with people who don’t necessarily speak their own language. They know they have friends. They can work things out with other people. We fail and try and practice in a safe community. We learn to play and dance and breathe together.

But we miss those whose English proficiency is beyond beginning. What a better vehicle is there than Minecraft? Low stakes. Low commitment is necessary, but it’s addictive. You want to come back and see what else you can do. What else you can build. What else you can discover.

I can see so many possibilities.

Thanks to my EVO compadres for helping me see the light. I’m a newb who is really ready to dig in deeper.

Isn’t that what a community’s for?

Today, I got schooled.

I’m supposed to be writing about what I’ve been learning about other Minecraft communities. And I will. Maybe tomorrow.

But I think I need to start by lauding my own community.

Last week, I got on Minecraft. There were a couple of other people there, and we started chatting. I had not found the same resources in our new world as in my practice survival mode. And I was getting a little desperate.

In my practice survival mode, I died many times. And with each death, I learned something new.

  • Like don’t get lost. (I couldn’t get back to my house and this green scary thing blew up in my face.)
  • Get home before dark, and don’t wander too far. (I felt a little like Red Riding Hood. My daughter had warned me, but I didn’t listen and got into a fight with a skeleton that shoots arrows from far away and a zombie. And I died.)
  • Don’t mine near lava. (You burn up pretty quickly. The resources aren’t worth it because you lose everything you’re carrying.)

So I felt pretty ready when our server turned from creative mode, where one can fly and build with unlimited resources, to survival mode. I had learned so much from dying multiple times.

The survival mode was put on easy. So I didn’t meet any spiders or skeletons or green scary things or zombies.

But I also couldn’t find any resources. Some had been left out for us, but I felt weird about taking other people’s things without giving any back when I knew how to get my own resources.

I took a few things. I was given a bucket. I took a hoe and a pickaxe. And a sword.

I couldn’t find cows, so my avatar I was getting hungry. I saw my food resources dwindling.

I couldn’t find coal, so I couldn’t make torches. And my multiple death experiences made me more than nervous about that. I thought about my refugee students and how this at first could seem unnerving, but eventually it could be empowering.

Some colleagues got on and started mining because one had found coal. One invited the other to come mine with him. I wasn’t personally invited, so my insecurities took over. How many of my students would do the same?

There was a bit of a crisis when the two broke their torches and couldn’t find their way out of the mine. I got a call for help and ran back to see what I could do. I eventually figured out I could hit torches off the wall and pick them up. I came back with some pilfered torches to help them out. And then I took off to seek my own fortune.

I found coal.

I found iron ore.

I planted wheat.

I started a cattle operation. Even learned how to do a little husbandry.

And then I went back to try to be part of the community.

And I got lost.

I ran through several day cycles because I knew there weren’t a whole lot of creepy crawlies out there to get me. But I got nowhere.

I had been lost in Minecraft for a few days. So this morning, I put a call out in the Google+ community. I asked whose house I was in and how I might find my way back to where I started. Jeff told me he thought I was at his house. And then I was asked for my coordinates.

WHAT??? COORDINATES??? Who knew there were coordinates???!!! I could have been making my own paper map the whole time.

And then Rose Bard gave me a compass. It always points toward the spawn point. Toward where I started. So close to home.

So awesome.

And she said, “What’s a community for, after all?” Or something like that. It was just what I needed. Just enough of a nudge.

I found the village that has sprung up around our resources.

And then I found home.

With a little help from my friends.

Prepping for Survival

I stepped into Minecraft a couple of times this past week… I built a house with a rooftop garden. I let my daughter spawn all sorts of horses and chickens. I built a henhouse. And I flew.

It was fun! It was zen. It was addicting.

But while I was there, I was chatting with another participant who had only played survival mode.

And I got scared.

There’s no flying in survival mode.

I thought I should give it a shot, just to see what we’re heading into this next week. So I tried playing on the ipad.

I drowned. Before I even figured anything out. I fell in the water and watched my life slip away.

First, the air bubbles.

Then the little hearts, marking health points, disappearing with little >>pop!<< noises. (Or maybe those were just in my head).

Then I went back to the laptop and tried again. Twice. I died the first time, again, and then I started dipping into the internet and finding people smarter than me. I learned how to make tools. I built an underground house. I am getting attacked by weird things. I died twice. But now it’s not so upsetting. I know I’ll respawn. I’ll try again.

So this is a great exercise for grit, the new word we’re supposed to be fostering in kids. They are just missing grit.

I think my students have that, but they also don’t like to just have things be out of control. They’ve had enough of that.

So I still need to get to the bit about language learning. I have read what people have said. I have seen some instances; but I still think this works a whole lot better as EFL than what my kids are facing.

Anybody have curriculum-based examples you’re ready to show me?



ExcELLing into a New Year

Ah, September!

My colleague and I are starting a new class this year that is a “soft landing” for ELL students. The purpose is to help students who come to us with very little oral English It’s called ExcELL, and you can look at our course here. It’s modeled off the first level of USALearns, a program that was

“an outgrowth of a project that was conceived by the U.S. Department of Education (ED), Office of Vocational and Adult Education, Division of Adult Education and Literacy (DAEL). DAEL promotes programs that help American adults get the basic skills they need to be productive workers, family members, and citizens. The major areas of support are Adult Basic Education, Adult Secondary Education, and English Language Acquisition.”–http://usalearns.org/index/aboutus.cfm

You can find the scope and sequence, if you’re interested, at the link above.

Our first few days have been incredible and annoying. Nothing like piloting a class on a new learning management system (LMS) with students who cannot understand anything you are saying. And yet, because we are meeting these students where they are, because we are their safe space, because we are trying to teach them those foundational skills that, honestly, nobody is checking to see that these students know in English, I feel it’s been a great success.

JPEG ImageWe also have a fantastic teaching artist, Lida Winfield, from the Flynn Center for the Performing Arts in Burlington (a list of artists are available here), who will be visiting our class every week for the next few months. What a joy to hear students laugh and to get them to play! Through playing games and Total Physical Response, we learned left, right, shoulders, knees, elbows, hands, backwards, forwards, inside, outside, circle, square, triangle, top, bottom, shirt, pants, skirt…. oh, the list goes on. She is amazing. We are so lucky to have her!

We have so many people who are coming in to see. I can’t wait until we are fully up and running…


SCRATCHing the surface

SCRATCHing the surface

So I am single mom for a couple of weeks. And what do I do? Enroll in a course. Because I don’t have enough to do.

But I thought I’d put it out there to share… Here’s my design notebook from Week 1. Just the basics.

Kick Start Your Blog focuses on imbedding media…

I LOVE media.:)

I have used video, Glogster, and, of course, lots and lots of photos. As a former layout editor, I believe visuals make the page. As an ESL teacher, I am completely sold on the idea that we are all in some way visual learners.

One of the possible assignments for this segment was to “Find a variety of posts that have media embedded and share these with your readers. Discuss their impact and effectiveness.”

Rather than posts, I prefer to share blogs that regularly embed some sort of media.

My all-time favorite is a journalism-technology blog called 10,000 words. The blog regularly shares how newspapers and online news outlets are using technology to reach their readers.

The next one on my list is iLearnTechnology. Rare is the occasion that Kelly doesn’t have some sort of graphic/movie/picture to hold my visual interest.

Technology and Education Box of Tricks is also really amazing for including graphics. I don’t visit often because I get too caught up in all the visual activity! It’s truly a work of art.

Peter Pappas in Copy/Paste also has amazing resources, and he always puts visual focus in his entries.

Pictures transcend. They make language accessible.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Great article!

Did you know younger teachers are no more likely to use tech than those who have been in the business for a while?



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